Thu, Jan 26, 2012 - Page 5 News List

Google plans to merge user data across more services

AP, LOS ANGELES

Google announced a plan on Tuesday to link user data across its e-mail, video, social-networking and other services that it says will create a “beautifully simple and intuitive” user experience. However, critics raised privacy concerns like those that helped kill the search giant’s Buzz social networking service.

The changes, which take effect on March 1, will remove some of the legal hurdles Google Inc faces in trying to link information across services from Gmail to YouTube to the Google Plus social network that replaced Buzz.

More than 70 different company policies are being streamlined into one main privacy policy and about a dozen others. Separate policies will continue to govern products including Google’s Chrome Web browser and its Wallet service for electronic payments.

The company said the new system will give users more relevant search results and information, while helping advertisers find customers — especially on mobile devices.

For example, if you spend an hour on Google searching the Web for skateboards, the next time you log into YouTube, you might get recommendations for videos featuring Tony Hawk, along with ads for his merchandise and the nearest place to buy them.

“If you’re signed into Google, we can do things like suggest search queries — or tailor your search results — based on the interests you’ve expressed in Google (Plus), Gmail and YouTube,” the company said on a new overview page for its privacy policies. “We’ll better understand [what] you’re searching for and get you those results faster.”

The changes follow the shutdown of Buzz last month. After its introduction less than two years ago, the social networking tool was ridiculed for exposing users’ most-emailed contacts to other participants by default, inadvertently revealing some users’ ongoing contact with ex-spouses and competitors.

Google has since made Plus the focal point of its challenge to Facebook’s social network. In the first seven months since its debut, Plus has attracted more than 90 million users, according to Google.

Google and the US’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached a settlement last year that forbids Google from misrepresenting how it uses personal information and from sharing an individual’s data without prior approval. Google also agreed to biennial privacy audits for the next two decades.

Some critics saw Google as trying to beat regulators to the punch by setting a precedent before the FTC unveils its own framework for protecting online privacy.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the privacy group Center for Digital Democracy, said Google hopes “that by creating a one-stop shop for privacy policy it will deflect regulatory action.”

Ryan Calo, director for privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said Google is trying to make its policy privacy transparent instead of bogging users down with pages of legalese; the new privacy policies run about 10,000 words, down from 68,000.

However, he said the company must ensure that the ways it uses data help users without revealing sensitive information.

“If it creeps people out, then they need to be aware of that,” he said.

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